Aidan Smith: Why Marcelo Bielsa should carry on spying

Football story of the week, maybe even the year already? If it merely concerned Argentine craziness I would be excited, but on top of that there's the espionage element. A pity that Spygate can't work prog-rock into the mix as well, but I shouldn't be greedy.

Spygate brought memories of Robert Vaughn, left and David McCallum as Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin.  Photograph:  Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock.
Spygate brought memories of Robert Vaughn, left and David McCallum as Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin. Photograph: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock.

In case you missed this, Leeds United manager Marcelo Bielsa caused an international incident when he was caught spying on Derby County’s training sessions. The closest the tale got to a musical reference was the detail about the vantage point being somewhere in the undergrowth behind the Rams’ practice area. “If there’s a rustle in the hedgerow,” warbled Robert Plant. But Led Zeppelin were never prog.

That the international incident happened in the week of weeks requiring that Brexit commentators examine just how Britain came to be in such a godawful mess made the story even juicier. These commentators cast back to a notorious moment more than half a century ago, with one arguing: “The Suez fiasco of 1956 was meant to have cured us of our imperial delusion, but what’s clear now is that many Britons never quite made that adjustment.”

You might argue that the Magyar fiasco of 1954 – England 1, Hungary 7 – was meant to have cured our friends in the south of their football delusion, but that adjustment doesn’t seem to have been made either. Not when there’s been such moral grandstanding over Bielsa’s actions involving the usual – and now pretty much defunct – holier-than-thou harrumphing about fair play.

Spygate brought memories of Robert Vaughn, left and David McCallum as Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin. Picture: REX/Shutterstock.

Footballers of all nationalities – not only foreigners, English ones too – will do anything to gain an advantage. Even strikers with MBEs bearing the names of two English kings – Harry Edward You-know-who – have been known to take a tumble in the box. Thankfully not everyone wanted Bielsa, pictured, stuffed in a cannon and fired from the nearest ramparts in the direction of Buenos Aires. “Self-righteous, humourless, overweening,” was one Twitter reaction to the over-reaction. “Just a game, give it a rest.”

I love this story because I grew up with spies. Cold War culture was omnipresent and comics and the TV schedules were stuffed with secret agents. I loved my Secret Sam attache case which could fire bullets and snap sneaky photos. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was another obsession and I was a member of the fan club. This entitled me to nothing more than a small yellow card with my name under a silhouette of Napoleon Solo, but it was enough. The house in the Lake District where our extended family gathered for Christmas had a sliding bookshelf leading to a secret chamber. This was straight out of my favourite show and I was swiftly transported back to a childhood engulfed in invisible ink, rice paper and x-ray specs.

The world of spies was dangerous and exciting and for football, once continental competition was up and running, newspaper back pages embraced the language of espionage. A club checking on upcoming opponents would send a coach on a “spying mission”. This fearless fellow, having survived the strange food and suspicious glances at customs, would return with a “dossier”. Only Milk Tray Man delivering chocolates to an impregnable tower was involved in more thrilling work.

Of course, Scotland spotted the adventure potential in continental competition before England whose Football Association didn’t fancy fraternising with foreigners in the very first European Cup, failing to put forward a club. This was 1955, so perhaps English sensibilities were still recovering from that thrashing by Puskas & Co. Has suspicion concerning those of different nationalities and their apparent “slipperiness” ever gone away? Right now it would seem not.

Maybe Spygate is outraging so many because Derby’s manager is Frank Lampard. Lamps of course was one of England’s golden generation of brave boys expected to bring home the World Cup. He was among the half-dozen players commissioned to write a book before the 2006 tournament had kicked off – who then helped seal the team’s quarter-final destiny by missing a penalty in the shootout, having been dazzled for a fatal second by David Beckham fiddling with his diamond earring. Or maybe this would have been the reaction to Bielsa anyway, given these strange and unsettling times. Really, the Leeds boss did nothing wrong when he scrutinised Derby’s methods. As he cheerfully admitted after being caught, he spies on all his opponents. He’s an eccentric sort who sits on an upturned bucket to watch his team. If English football admits foreign players and managers then to some degree it has to accept their customs and quirks, no matter how unusual and different they may be. Sure, the incomers have to acknowledge they’re in a different place, but culture clashes are to be enjoyed; no one should be scared of them. Football doesn’t need a version of Norman Tebbit’s “cricket test”.

The bucket, the glasses on a neck-cord, the ritual of always taking 13 steps to cross his technical area at Athletic Bilbao – Bielsa’s idiosyncrasies have tended to get in the way of the fact this is a deep thinker about the game who’s always been fanatical and forensic about research.

Jonathan Wilson in his brilliant history of Argentine football, Angels With Dirty Faces, suggests Bielsa probably developed his respect for knowledge and learning from his grandfather who owned 30,000 books.

“It’s characteristic of Bielsa that he doesn’t regard his obsession as unusual; rather he always seems slightly taken aback that others don’t spend their days poring over DVDs of old football,” writes Wilson. “Once, when asked how he planned to spend the Christmas and New Year holiday, Bielsa said deadpan that he intended to do two hours of physical exercise each day and spend 14 hours watching videos. He has, apparently, developed the ability to watch two games simultaneously. ‘I am a student of football,’ he said.”

And of course maybe he now knows more about Lampard’s team than Lamps himself.